Do you ever hear people say that the “literary” quality of a book doesn’t matter because they’re just reading for pleasure? I hear it now and then, and the remark vexes me because it implies that literary quality detracts from pleasure, when quality should increase pleasure. I imagine that what people mean is that “literary” equals challenging and that pleasurable reading should not be a challenge. But I disagree. Pleasure comes in many forms, and for me, one of those forms can include being challenged.
Some of my favorite writers—Thomas Hardy, Marilynne Robinson, José Saramago—are considered difficult. That feeling is sometimes expressed with a sniffy sort of reverse snobbery that suggests that those of us who claim to enjoy these writers are just trying to impress. But many readers take genuine pleasure in books that aren’t easy reads. I discovered Saramago, for example, entirely on my own, learning only after I read and loved The Double that he had received a Nobel Prize. When I picked that book up, I surely didn’t expect to impress anyone by reading it.
That said, I don’t think every book needs to be difficult to be enjoyable. Some of my other favorite writers—Stephen King, Ruth Rendell, Georgette Heyer—are sometimes dismissed as trashy genre writers whose works don’t challenge the reader or offer anything to chew on. Whether they offer anything to chew on is debatable. (In some cases, they absolutely do.) But who says every book needs to be a meaty challenge to be of value? Might some readers take pleasure in being entertained and not desire anything more? Plus, what’s challenging to one reader might be a breeze to someone else.
My reading tastes are eclectic enough that I enjoy books that challenge me and books that merely divert me. Which kind of book I gravitate to depends on my mood and mental state. Other readers might find that they consistently lean more toward one kind of book than another. Every now and then, I find a book that stimulates my mind and is superbly entertaining. Such books tend to be my favorites, but not every book needs to please me in every way to be worth my time.
Stef has written a couple of posts about this topic recently, which I encourage you to check out. But I think one of the best statements I’ve seen related to reading for pleasure comes from Umberto Eco, in the Postscript to The Name of the Rose:
The ideal reader of Finnegans Wake must, finally, enjoy himself as much as the ideal reader of Erle Stanley Gardner. Exactly as much, but in a different way.
What do you think of when you hear people say they read for pleasure or enjoyment? Do you tend to enjoy certain kinds of books more than others? How important is it to you to be challenged by what you read?